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I woke up in the morning, all cozy in our little tent. Tyler and I had slept well last night. We did not hear any bears roaming through the camp. Whether that was because the bears had a feast last night and felt no need to return for more food, or because we just slept through them walking by our heads, I guess I’ll never know.
About the time I woke up, I noticed that it started sprinkling. I made a dash for the towels we had strung up the night before and stowed them in the car along with the camp chairs. Back into the tent I went. Tyler and I waited out the drizzle. It seemed to let up, so I hurried to the bathhouse to change clothes. I was just finishing brushing my teeth when it started legitimately raining. By the time I made it to the car, it was downright pouring. I could hear Tyler hollering encouragement as I scurried to the car. I dove inside and sheltered there until the rain let up a bit. While I waited, I read Just Passin’ Thru, a wonderful book Nancy gave me about Mountain Crossings, the outdoor gear store on the Appalachian Trail.
Eventually, the rain let up enough for me to join Tyler in the tent, where we discussed what to do with our day. Originally, the itinerary was to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway to Roanoke, stop there and explore for a bit before continuing on to Grayson Highlands State Park. By the Blue Ridge Parkway, it would be a long, full day of driving. Since we decided to ditch the Blue Ridge Parkway, it would only take 3 1/2 to 4 hours.
The night before, our neighbors had mentioned hiking to a nearby waterfall and highly recommended that we check it out. They said the hike was maybe 2.5 miles to the waterfall, a bit technical, and that the waterfall was great for swimming. It sounded awesome! So while Tyler was cooking dinner on the stove, I went over to ask about directions to the falls.
They didn’t know how to get to the falls so they called over their friend, who gave me not super clear directions. They were, turn left out of the campground, just past the store on the left is a road, turn left, drive on that, then turn left onto a gravel road called Saint Mary’s. The waterfall is also called Saint Mary’s. It seemed straightforward enough, but I was a little unsure since I didn’t quite know the store he was referring to and wasn’t sure the road next to it would be obvious.
Tyler and I talked it over, and decided to hike to the waterfall. Now, I’ll be honest, I was a bit skeptical. Hiking in the rain is fine, but hiking in the rain to a waterfall seemed a little odd, considering I wasn’t sure I wanted to get in the water if I was cold from the rain. It was not as hot in the mountains of Virginia as it was back home. Still, I decided it was worth a try. The waterfall sounded too awesome to pass up.
There was a break in the rain just long enough for us to pack up the tent. I turned left out of the campground and drove slowly, looking for the little store our neighbor’s friend had described. Sure enough, there was a store on the left, and a paved road just past it. I turned onto the road and saw a sign stating that we were entered a wilderness area. Tyler and I figured we were on the right track. We drove down the road a for a bit before it turned into a gravel road. Wait a minute, the guy said you turn onto a gravel road, not that this one turns into a gravel road. Maybe we aren’t in the right place.
Well it just so happens we got a tiny bar of service at this point. That little bar of service was our downfall. Tyler and I started searching for directions to Saint Mary’s waterfall in Virginia. There is a Saint Mary’s and Virginia Falls in Glacier National Park so we had to be careful not to read articles about that! Tyler founds a site with directions to the trail head and a trail description. Turns out we need to go about 10 miles in the other direction from our campground. We needed to turn right, not left. Perhaps our neighbors had the name of the waterfall wrong? This trail description talked of fording a river and navigating a small cliff to reach the waterfall with a total of 5.5 miles of hiking.
Tyler saved that article and off we went. We drove to a trailhead off the Blue Ridge Parkway, shivered a bit while changing clothes, packing lunches, and putting on our hiking boots. Then we were off. Since it was raining, Tyler did not bring the nice camera. Instead we relied on our waterproof phones for taking pictures.
Tyler and I started off hiking in good spirits. The rain made all the colors of the forest pop. We even saw some interesting fungi that were brilliant orange. The hike started off going downhill. Some places it was very steep, other places almost flat, but always downhill.
We crossed a creek too many times to count. As we walked, Tyler and I bee-booped and mmm-bopped different tunes. Improvising like that is one of Tyler’s favorite things. I had fun too, but I am not very good at it. For one, I’m not creative. There is a reason why my favorite dances are line dances where the song tells you what to do. For another, I was having a hard time focusing on the music, the beautiful forest around us, and where to put my feet. I found myself either ceasing to sing or stopping to stare at the brilliant colors around me.
On the never-ending downhill, Tyler and I were surprised to pass by two backpackers hiking up. The called out a greeting and said “If you find someone passed out back there, give a holler.” Apparently, they had one more member of their group who was struggling up the hill. Shortly after, we passed him too. He seemed a bit winded, but not passed out!
Tyler was happy that there were lots of rocky areas alongside the trail where snakes like to live. Every so often, he would stop and peer into a nice hidey-hole hoping to find a snake. He does this pretty much anytime we hike. Though I tell him his propensity for hiking in the rain does not increase his chances of finding a snake.
Finally, we made it to the bottom. According to the trail description, we just hiked two miles downhill. The trail dead ends into another trail at the bottom of the hill with a sign pointing out which trail goes where. We turned left at the sign and continued hiking.
Then we got confused.
The trail description was actually a description of multiple possible routes you could take, some of which took you to the waterfall, some of which did not. We thought within a half mile after the sign, we would encounter the river we had to ford. But we had hiked seemingly much farther than a half mile and had encountered no river. We couldn’t even see or hear a river! What?
We read the trail description again. This time, we interpreted it that we should have gone right at the sign. Some grumbling ensued. Then we backtracked continuing past the old worn-out sign. We hiked a little ways, but again the description did not match what we were observing. Thankfully, we encountered a backpacking couple. We asked them, “Do you know which way to the falls?”
Happily the said yes! They told us that we should have gone left at the sign like we originally did. The trail would go downhill further to the river and we would pass some cool mine ruins. When we the four of us started hiking again they gestured “You guys go first. You must be booking it.” We declined and told them to go ahead. I didn’t think much of the comment at the time, but I should have.
We berated ourselves for a bit for not sticking to our original idea, but got over it. The falls were near and we knew which way to go. Hooray! Tyler and I passed back by the sign, which at this point I was beginning to dislike. We hiked quickly. With a 4 hour drive ahead of us, and a 2 mile climb back out, I was a bit worried about us making it to Grayson Highlands before the park closed for the night at 10 PM. We hiked farther than we had the first time, but I noticed we were actually go uphill, not downhill like the backpacking couple said we would.
The steady rain we had been hiking in all day suddenly turned into a downpour. I sped along, trying to keep warm. My rain jacket had long since been soaked through and my feet were squelching in my shoes. When the rain showed no sign up letting up, I called out to Tyler, “I think we need to turn around. I won’t be able to keep myself warm if it keeps raining like this.” I was already wearing my extra jacket under my rain jacket.
I was sad, cold, and tired. I felt like we were so close to the waterfall and we had come so far already to give up now. Tyler ran ahead a bit to see if the trail would go downhill to the river as expected. It didn’t. Tyler came back. I was shivering, and we decided it was definitely time to turn around.
I was disappointed that we wouldn’t make it to the waterfall, but my spirits lifted at the prospect of putting on dry clothes and sitting in the warm car. Tyler and I talked. We decided that despite the fact that we wouldn’t see the much sought after waterfall, we were happy we hiked in the rain anyways. It was definitely an adventure and for the most part a fun one. Sometimes, adventures have to suck a little, but those usually make the best stories anyways.
We hiked back to that rotten little sign. I enjoyed splashing in the puddles that formed along the trail. My boots were soaked so there was no point in trying to avoid water. Every step I took, my feet got to squish in their own personal puddle inside my shoe! It was fun.
With renewed spirits (a banana and nutella sandwich always helps), we started the never-ending climb back to the car. We climbed, and climbed, and climbed. Our legs were sore and our feet hurt, yet onward we climbed. In some places, we wondered how we hadn’t noticed it was so steep going down. Still, we climbed. Quickly are first, slowly after a few minutes. The good thing about climbing though was that I was actually staying warm.
We crossed the same creek a countless number of times and wondered how much farther. Still, we climbed. Surely, we must we close, but no, there was more. We even passed by this little orange sea anemone looking fungus I had noticed on our way down. We thought it was close to the beginning of the trail. It was, but not as close as we remembered. We thought just around the bend, we would see the car, but no. Only more climbing.
After more than an hour of straight climbing, we reached the top. I was so happy to see my little teal car through the trees. Finally, I can put on something dry! It was a bit of a struggle to remove my wet clothes. My shirt was so stuck to me, Tyler had to help me take it off. I quickly grew cold once I stopped hiking, so as soon as I managed to throw on some dry clothes I huddled in the car and left Tyler to organize our wet gear. He actually had to pour water out of my boots. Yay for husbands who are generally less cold than you.
All told, we hiked in the rain for a little over four hours. Given that my usual hiking pace tends to average out to about 2 miles per hour, we hiked close to 8 miles: the most either one of us has ever hiked in one day.
Remember how I said that little bit of service was our downfall? Well, I did a terrible thing. I looked up more about Saint Mary’s Waterfall when we got home from our trip. It turns out that our neighbors were right. If we had followed their vague directions we would have found the proper trailhead and had a much shorter hike to Saint Mary’s Waterfall. I only found this out after reading through the comment sections on one of the many websites that talk about the route we took.
There are two ways to reach Saint Mary’s Waterfall. So despite what we thought at the time, we really were hiking towards the same waterfall that our neighbors had described to us. The trail they took is not a well-known route. The way we went is. However, what we didn’t realize was that our route was actually at least 10 miles of hiking round trip. The 5.5 miles we saw was an “additional 5.5 mile” route to the waterfall. The website was just plain confusingly written.
Also, I figured out that when we turned around, we were still nowhere near the waterfall, so it was a good thing we decided to go back when we did. We should have questioned the backpacking couple how far away the waterfall was, especially after they made the comment about us being super fast. Ah well, it was certainly an adventure!
After our epic day of hiking, we still had to drive to Grayson Highlands State Park, where we had camping reservations for the night. Tyler drove. I was so tired that I actually took a nap for a little while.
We pulled into the campground before the 10 PM deadline, just before the sunset. It didn’t matter much though, because the fog was so thick you could barely see 10 feet in front of you! Tyler and I set up camp before taking blissfully hot showers. While the bathhouse wasn’t as new as the one at Sherando Lake Recreational Area, it didn’t have push button showers and the water never ran cold. I could stand under a continuous spray of warm water for as long as I like, which wasn’t actually that long because I was tired and ready to go to bed!
After turning out the lantern (I’m pretty sure I did this every night because Tyler takes shorter showers than me), I crawled into the tent. I think I may have been asleep before my head hit the pillow. I had quite the adventurous day.